Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. Paulo Freire

I had a friend who was a published poet and children’s author, and hence had a more than passing interest in the beauty of language and reading. She was devastated to find that 3 of her 4 boys had such severe dyslexia that they will struggle with decoding all their lives. When I, in professional rather than friend mode, suggested that they could learn strategies to circumvent the barrier of print, she spat out that she didn’t want strategies, she wanted them to read. I understood her anguish but we lost touch. The needs of her own children, quite rightly, struck too raw a nerve for her; the needs of a larger community of learners with dyslexia were too close to my heart.

She was unable to hear my point that at some point it is incumbent upon us to help children learn ways to express themselves and to locate information that don’t require fluent reading and spelling. At what juncture we change the emphasis on phonics and orthography in order to teach a child these different approaches is dependent on many things.

To help young inexperienced readers to understand the concept of alternative strategies I introduce cognitive conflict; (a fancy way of saying I lie to them. After all, story telling is nothing but lies!). This gives them an opportunity to consider other points of view and their own opinions about aspects of their learning and development. Without such experience, taking on board the notion that it’s okay to approach a problem in different ways seems to be too abstract for some immature learners. Investigating text is a higher order reading skill and requires rehearsal and repetition if it is to become automatic, just like other aspects of reading. Here is a story of how a group of P2 children began to reflect consciously on how they arrive at conclusions about the rules governing rhyme and alliteration.

catOnce I read a story called Scat Cat!, declaring at the start that the book was about an elephant. I defended my position when some demurred by describing how the pet shop owner had sold me an animal just like the one in the illustration assuring me that it was, indeed, an elephant. Some children rapidly opted out of the discussion; others agreed that their perception of what cats and elephants are must be at fault. (The teacher is always right). However, 2 children vociferously challenged me. Ultimately they formulated excellent and succinct definitions of cat and elephant which changed my mind.

Those who had initially been uninvolved gradually joined in and their early confusion turned to pleasure when they realised it was permitted to question my misconceptions. It is interesting to note that the one child who used phonic rather than contextual cues to work out the meaning of the story was a girl identified as on the Autistic Spectrum. She was totally unmotivated by philosophical enquiry; she was adamant that the word on the cover said cat and therefore it had to be a feline.

The growing sense of independent thought that I aimed to encourage in these 6 year olds who already had a sense of themselves as stupid, was not, in the short term, helpful for their survival in the classroom, I have to admit. On occasion, boundaries of courtesy were crossed inevitably and we established what was and was not acceptable over time. The class teacher perceived their developing confidence in their own opinions as cheekiness at times. The convention that the teacher is the holder of all useful knowledge is one that is hard to turn around, especially when the children spend much time with practitioners who do not themselves question this role. Such is the conundrum for many Support for Learning teachers on a daily basis. This is in no way meant to be a criticism of my colleagues who face 30 youngsters day in day out. It is so much easier to recognise strengths and develop the whole child when one is working with small groups.

Cognitive conflict was significant in encouraging this group of learners to articulate their thinking. This became clear when they started arguing with each other and me in an attempt to make meaning out of abstract lessons about phonology. At times I over heard one child say to another, How do you know? – evidence indeed that he was thinking about thinking. An exciting moment.